Having this insight, you would think I rarely walk out of a church service confused. But I do! It's not that the teaching is too theological--if you'd like to talk, I can explain the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Nor do I find the messages to be too removed from every day life. Truth be told, the church seems to have come a long way in making the Bible not only understandable, but relate-able. What, then, leaves me perplexed?
Jesus. But not Jesus himself. It's the way we have portrayed Jesus in the Church. This is nothing new. It's obvious the world thinks we are a bunch of hypocrites, but that's another discussion entirely. You see, sometimes, those of us in the church have a way of making Jesus a bit more palatable. A little less offensive. We find our way around his more difficult and politically incorrect thoughts on life. We dismiss it as a metaphor. And, just like the expert in the law, referenced in The Parable of the Good Samaritan, we will look for a loophole--"who is my neighbor?". And sometimes we are guilty of putting words in Jesus' mouth. Words he never said. Words he never alluded to. Words that can't even be found by reading between the lines. It seems that many of us have mastered the art of Biblical Twister--using Scripture, out of context, to support our own take on what we think Jesus really meant to say.
In case you need a little convincing, I've put together a few popular sayings that have (at one time or another) been attributed to Jesus (or the Bible). "God helps those who help themselves." Where can you find this one in the Bible? Trick question. You can't find it because it's not there. Or how about "God won't give you more than you can handle." Nothing like this crossed the lips of Jesus according to Scripture. And while I tend to agree that "Cleanliness is next to Godliness." Jesus doesn't come close to teaching anything of the sort.
Which is why I have chosen to start this series of posts. To set the record straight on some things we, the Church, might have you believing Jesus actually said.
"Establish a church, purchase a building, and gather together with like minded individuals." -Jesus
In case I've already lost or confused you, Jesus never said that. From my estimation, he never encouraged his followers to set up a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization. Nor did he encourage any of them to purchase a building in order that they can hold weekly worship services. And oddly enough, Jesus never really mentioned that his purpose was to create a community of like minded people.
Perhaps you disagree. You might be inclined to think that Jesus came to do away with the religious system and start a new church. But, you'd be wrong. Jesus clearly points out that he didn't come to abolish the current system, just to set it straight. Maybe you question how the church could gather together in the thousands to hear the apostles preach without their own building. You could point to the fact that the meeting place of a large church in Jerusalem was the temple (Acts 2:46). The fact remains, these instances were the exception, not the rule. Furthermore, that is the only reference to Christians meeting in the temple after Pentecost. Or maybe, after reading the biography of Jesus' life, you have concluded that he drew crowds of the like minded. While that was certainly the case to an extent, I hardly think that was his purpose. And the record clearly shows, those who were drawn to Jesus came from all walks of life.
Now that we've cleared that up, let me start off by saying that I don't find anything wrong with establishing a church. Partaking in the worship and community most churches offer is a vital aspect to the Christian life. Neither do I believe churches that purchase buildings are inherently evil. There is no doubt in my mind that property ownership can be a fiscally responsible thing--and Jesus does admonish us to be good stewards. And I can attest to the fact that when the church is unified and acts like the church, there is no entity on earth that can bring about greater good. When put into the proper perspective, churches, buildings and unity are useful tools. They are the means by which we are able to establish the kingdom of heaven here on earth.
But, I can't get around the blaring truth that Jesus didn't tell us to create a tax exempt institution. Yet, from the founding of this country, the church has had a contractual agreement with the government granting them exemption from taxes. All under the premise of keeping the church and the state separate. Today, a vast majority of churches operate under the umbrella of a 501(c)(3) organization. While it seems this is a great benefit to the church, the reality may be quite different. Being extended tax-exempt status by the government requires an organization to jump through certain hoops, so to speak. There are rules and requirements that must be adhered to in order to maintain the right to claim exemption. One such requirement is that any 501(c)(3) entity must not be an action organization--in other words, they shouldn't attempt to influence legislation, nor are they allowed to participate in any campaign activities. Lately, this has been more than evident with the volatile political debates taking place on marriage, health care reform, abortion, immigration law, and our involvement in the war overseas (just to name a few). For the church to uphold this contract with the government requires nothing short of silence regarding all of these issues (and more). Unfortunately, it's tough to be a light in the darkness by remaining distant and silent on topics such as these. Which is why I have to agree with Mike Huckabee that, "It's time for churches to reject tax exempt status completely; freedom is more important than government financial favors." Whether we believe it or not, it is our responsibility to stand on the truth of Jesus Christ and affect change in our world. And sometimes that means we need to get involved in the political arena. But it's tough to do so when we are dependent on handouts from the government for remaining silent.
As far as property ownership goes, Jesus never said it was necessary to spread the Good News., like some churches would have you believe. And to be honest, we read very little about the church, as a centralized institution, owning property. There were indications that, in Rome, early Christians met in various public places such as warehouses or apartment buildings. But, for the most part, the church was dependent on members who owned property to provide places for their gatherings--i.e. the house of Mary, the house of Lydia, the house of Justus--I think you get the picture. The New Testament church also reveals that property and possessions belonged to individuals (not the church), but were sold in order that the church could provide for those in need (Acts 2:45)--something the church seems to have lost sight of today. It seems to me, a vast majority of church budgets is being directed toward property ownership and upkeep. I've seen some incredible, state-of-the-art, church facilities. And it's no secret, religious institutions own a lot of real estate. In the United States alone, the estimated value of un-taxed church property lands somewhere between $300 and $500 billion. I can't even wrap my head around that much money. If only some of that were redirected I can't help but think it would go a long way in providing basic necessities for so many in our world that go without. Sadly, many churches have the propensity to equate their success with the former as opposed to the latter. Perhaps this is why Jesus and the early apostles seemed so unconcerned with creating extravagant worship centers. To focus on a building seems counter-intuitive to what they were trying to do. Not only does it perpetuate the idea that this building is where ministry happens--which is a hard theology to teach considering "the Son of Man had no place to lay his head." But it also fuels the competitive spirit of comparison and has a tendency to lead to a church where comfort and complacency reign supreme.
Last, but certainly not least, I don't really recall Jesus requiring everyone who followed him to think exactly like he did. Have you read through the Gospels? Do you recall how many times the disciples--Jesus' closest followers--completely missed the boat on what he was doing? James and John were known as "The Sons of Thunder" for wanting to strike down everyone who got in their way with lightning from heaven. Peter denies Jesus three times in one night. The sight of the resurrected Christ wasn't enough proof for Thomas; he had to feel the actual wounds. And I can't even begin to tell you how many times Jesus chastised all of them for their lack of faith. Yet, in spite of all their shortcomings, he didn't reject them. He never turned any of them away because they didn't uphold a certain standard. To my knowledge, they never went through any sort of ceremonial initiation to join his crew. I'm certain he didn't ask them to sign a membership agreement. It's unfortunate that many of us have taken the exact opposite approach when it comes to joining the church. Instead of Jesus' "follow me" mentality, numerous churches seem to have an "agree to this" approach. The "my way or the highway" attitude. You're in or you're out. We have mistakenly majored on the minors. Unfortunately its doctrine--not dogma--that is dictating what it means to follow Jesus. And that very doctrine is alienating those who most desperately need what Jesus and the church have to offer. In the words of one of my college professors, "We have made it more difficult to join the church than God made it to get into Heaven."
What a sad state we find ourselves in partnering with the government for financial gain; all the while remaining distant and silent from the atrocities we are called to address. In promoting the church at the expense of the kingdom; under the premise that it equips us to serve the community better. In valuing conformity at the expense of unity; thinking we are weeding out the heretical. But it makes me wonder. Have we missed Jesus' most important mandate--to go? Would he have something to say about the state of the church and our current understanding. Or, better yet, would our churches even welcome Jesus into their body with open arms?